How to Keep Talking about Climate Change with Television?

Elke Weissmann

Many of us probably feel that this is a time of crisis: the cost-of-living, the invasion of Ukraine, and so much more. These crises are real and evident, and also clearly taking place now.

Disasters, catastrophes and crises need to be constructed as events to grab the headlines (see for example Bednarek and Caple, 2017), often with an element of surprise. As the surprise wears off, so does the interest in reporting on it. For stories such as the cost-of-living crisis and the invasion of Ukraine, this is a problem. But now imagine having to report on a crisis that scientist grew increasingly concerned about in the 1950s.

Those of us who follow the headlines know that we have to act now to avoid an even worse ‘climate breakdown’ to use the more recent terminology adopted by researchers. Unfortunately, reporters struggle with keeping the topic in the news due to new and emerging crises that appear more timely than climate change. In addition, ‘Upping the Ante’, that is using more alarmist language such as ‘climate crisis’, ‘climate emergency’ and indeed ‘climate breakdown’ does not seem to help news organisations as they create a perception of sensationalism in the readers and viewers, thus reducing the credibility of the news source (Feldman and Hart, 2021).

Television has therefore attempted to find different means of engaging audiences in the topic of climate change. Fans of David Attenborough documentaries know them to regularly bring up the topic, amongst others by drawing attention to declining habitats. Similarly, Monty Don on Gardeners’ World has emphasised both the effects of climate change (the wetness of winters, for example) and what we can do to work against it (avoid peat compost at all costs, amongst others). Other programmes are yet more didactic: Shop Well for the Planet, a BBC lifestyle programme to coincide with COP26 in 2021, ‘instructed’ families in how they can reduce their carbon footprints, giving audiences lots to emulate.

The question of how to communicate both the urgency of climate action and get more people involved in doing something is also at the heart of an Edge Hill research project collaboration with the University of Liverpool, Love Wavertree and funded by the British Academy. This investigates if local television is effective in communicating local climate action to a greater number of people.

So we are asking the public to help us: What TV programme has helped you to make sense of climate change and inspired you to act?

In order to honour your views and celebrate good practice we are giving this year’s Critical Award in Television to the programme that gets your vote.

To vote for the ‘Programme that engaged audiences with climate change‘, scan this QR code:

Or put 179-128-316 into the Vevox App

Visit the CATs webpage to vote in the other categories: Critical Award in Television

Happy Voting!

Dr Elke Weissmann is a Reader in Film and Television at Edge Hill University. Her research interests focus on television, in particular aspects of transnational and convergent television, and feminism.

How Should We Pay for the BBC?

Dr Elke Weissmann

It is unlikely that you will have missed the announcement by Nadine Dorries, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who suggested that the licence fee, in addition of being frozen again for the next two years, will not be renewed in 2027. This, of course, is (partially) contingent on if she and indeed her government are still in power by then. Commentators have also suggested the announcement was meant to be a distraction from ‘Partygate’ about which Paula Keaveney has blogged for the ISR.

However, the announcement has made clear that the current government is continuing a policy regarding public service broadcasting that has been Conservative policy since the 1980s, when the Peacock Committee was set up to investigate if the licence fee could be abolished. As broadcasting scholar Paddy Scannell has highlighted, the Peacock Committee reconceptualised public service broadcasting away ‘from a social and cultural service for the community [towards] the production of commodities for individual consumers’ (1990: p29). It’s this latter understanding that has been particularly visible in social media responses that showed support for Dorries’s announcement, as the one below.

Television scholars have looked at these changes with concern, as the above quote makes clear. The reason for this is simple: we see in public service television more than the television you can watch. There are of course alternative ways of funding public service broadcasting, as both ITV and Channel 4 make evident. But as both of these broadcasters show as well, this form of commercial funding of public service television is under significant strain; a report in 2016, Ernst & Young LPP spell this out explicitly for Channel 4.

So far, the licence fee has given the BBC a large regular income which has enabled it to provide the variety of services that we consume: the television, website, radio, the world service and the educational services in partnership with the Open University, films, etc. Over the years they have become part-financed by the BBC’s commercial services which supplements it to about a third of the BBC’s income (Annual Report, 2021).

Its programmes are made with certain remits in mind, meaning that they have to represent that nation in its diversity. This is why we get such a wide variety of programmes from Strictly Come Dancing (since 2004), via Gardeners’ World (since 1968), Question Time (since 1979), sports coverage to dramas including EastEnders (since 1985) and Small Axe (with Amazon Prime, 2020). It has a duty to represent the United Kingdom to the world and thus is an ambassador for it. As a result, it also is pivotal to the British tourist industry, including for Liverpool which has benefitted enormously from its association with Peaky Blinders (since 2013).

Letitia Wright, Small Axe

But most of all, it continues to provide a social and cultural service: this includes the educational services it made available to all children during lockdown and that remain an important tool for teaching even in the returned classroom. But it also includes giving us programmes to talk about, including those that make us angry, because the licence fee guarantees that we all can universally access its services in some form or another. And thus, the BBC continues to offer a glue that binds the nation together – its unique, but how we finance it in the era of streaming, YouTube and others – needs wider debate.

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film. She is ECREA editor of Critical Studies in Television and part of Edge Hill University’s Television Studies Research Group.

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

COP26, Local Climate Action and TV: What can be done in Liverpool?

Dr Elke Weissmann

Many people concerned about climate change will say that COP26 ended up being a bit of a disappointment.

We do want to do something. The problem is that we do not always know what we need to do, or perhaps how simple it is to do something, not just as individuals, but as communities.

Edge Hill University’s Television Studies Research Group is currently working with Love Wavertree to examine what the community can do to tackle climate change through the medium of television (through a local, community-led channel). The aim is to follow the local community as they undertake climate change projects and to record this for community-led television programmes, made available as online videos.

In so doing, we draw on the experiences of German local television which is community-led, but often struggles to find content. German ‘Offene Kanäle’ (open channels) are run by small teams or even individuals on very limited budgets and with a remit for locally produced content by community groups or individuals.

Fortunately, in Liverpool we can draw on the talent of local students, studying on film, television and journalism degrees, who can support the development of more regular programming in this area. This programming is also inspired by the British history of public service broadcasting which is not only meant to educate, inform and entertain, but also to bring the community together.

On Sunday, 7 November, we screened The People v Climate Change at Wavertree Town Hall. This was then followed by presentations from the Heseltine Institute at the University of Liverpool and a Q&A. Three of Edge Hill’s students, Cara Gaskell, Bobbie Scanlon and Chloe Clover, filmed and edited the event.

We are now making this film available to the larger community, including you, so you can find out about the specific climate change challenges and opportunities in Liverpool and surrounding region.

The People v Climate change can be watched on the iPlayer, while the recording of the post-screening talks and Q&A can be watched here.

Watch and be inspired!

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on television, transnational relations, and gender and the media.

Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

Is there Value in Television?

Dr Elke Weissmann

On the 27 September, we celebrated the Critical Awards in Television for the first time. The awards are part of larger attempts by researchers and scholars in television to question what we accept as ‘good’ when we talk about television.

The awards – which are a collaboration between the EHU Television Studies Research Group of the Department of Creative Arts, the Institute for Social Responsibility, Critical Studies in Television, the Production Guild and Love Wavertree – aim to take the debate about ‘quality’ beyond the scholarly community and make the wider audience aware of questions of ‘value’.

What do we value when it comes to television?

We know we should all watch the newest iteration of expensive British or American drama, but we would rather curl up in front of the familiarity of our favourite soap.

We know that the news are good for us because they help us in our political decision making, but when it’s all bad news, some of us would rather turn to the comfort of home and garden making and other ‘lifestyle’ programming.

In the year of Covid, the Awards focused on TV that is often overlooked.

The award for comfort TV was voted on by the public. The winner, was Swan Film and Grayson’s Art Club (Channel 4, since 2020).

Similarly, we felt we should celebrate writing and production designing that cleverly used the restrictions of Covid to enhance its drama. There were only two contenders in the end: Keeping Faith (S4C, BBC, 2017-2021) which used the social distancing measures to really emphasise the emotional distances between the characters and Staged (BBC, 2020-2021) which was all about the pandemic and how it affected the two characters, Michael Sheen and David Tennant, who played themselves.  Here, Infinity Hill won with Staged.

However, this year, we placed the biggest importance on the work of keeping staff and crew safe which is part of the job of the production manager. Production managers are highly skilled and highly creative (as we saw in particular this year), but its not a job that a student dreams of when they think of the glamour of television. This is why we decided to celebrate it twice: by giving an award to those professionals who kept television productions going when everything else stopped, and by celebrating the students who managed to produce work despite restrictions.

The winners for this category were Lime Pictures and Hollyoaks (Channel 4, since 1995) who not only performed regular Covid tests on staff, but also trained actors up to do their own make-up, developed strict non-contact protocols in prop and costume and reduced scenes to as minimal a crew as possible. But we also gave the award to Gardeners’ World (BBC, since 1968) which was similarly creative by involving presenters in filming, getting remote-controlled cameras and asking the public to participate in the creation of the programme.

But it was the students that blew us away with their creativity – making use of the Covid restrictions to come up with compelling television in the form of quiz shows, television drama, documentaries and avant-garde think pieces.

From our shortlist of eleven productions, it was Middlesex University, and Joseph Ferris and Isaac Pimm’s quiz show Percentage that took the winning price. As Lyndsay Duthie, the CEO of the Production Guild and judge of the student production award, put it, this was a highly professional and creative idea, extremely well executed.

Congratulations to all winners – and we will be back next year.

View videos of the awards and winners here.

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film at Edge Hill University and lead curator of the Critical Television Awards.

Photos: Middlesex University students celebrating. EHU Vice-Chancellor John Cater. Prof Lyndsay Duthie, the Production Guild. Host and Edge Hill alumnus, Philip McGuiness.

The Show Still Went on – Despite the Risk Assessments!

Perelandra Beedles

The spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) had a profound impact on many industries, and the broadcast sector was no exception. As governments around the world imposed various restrictions to try to limit the further spread of the virus, the impact on film and TV production was immediate.

I followed the progress of the UK broadcast industry closely, as they attempted to meet the requirement for covid health and safety measures. Having worked for decades as a Producer and Production Manager I already knew how inventive and hardworking productions teams can be, but it was still impressive to see just how pioneering television crews became; from filming presenters in their homes, to creating storylines which allowed covid bubbles of crew and cast to be formed; it was an exercise in rapid innovation.

The film and TV Restart Scheme (DCMS/Gov) may have helped productions mitigate against issues in terms of insurance, but it was the clear guidelines created by organisations such as the  British Film Commission (BFC) and PACT which offered vital signposting in the early days of getting production back on track.

It was also the moment for production managers to shine. Already used to delivering a centrally orchestrated approach to behaviours, they quickly ​adapted to new Covid protocols, developing ground-breaking methodologies to do so.​ This work was not only impressive in terms of production craft, but also played a vital role in helping the nation survive the challenges of lockdown. Ensuring the public were still able to access engaging, wonderful shows, even on the darkest of days.

Prior to Covid, the Television Research group at Edge Hill University, had already decided to create the Critical Awards in Television. As we all spent longer amounts of times indoors, the need to celebrate television and all it offered us became ever more important; and so it felt entirely right to create a Covid Health and Safety award.

We have invited production companies to nominate the productions they feel were particularly successful in negotiating health and safety for their productions. Voting is still open and the response to this acknowledgement to the demands created by the new H & S protocols has been truly humbling. Production Managers have spoken of the varied and holistic approaches they had to create, as the boundaries between homelife and the production office were blurred.​

From having to teach presenters and their families to self-shoot from home, to reinventing workflows to allow everything to be shot and edited fully remotely, what is abundantly clear is that the UK television industry is open to learn, able to adapt and will always find a way to keep the nation entertained.

The Critical Awards in Television will be held on 27th September at Wavertree Town Hall. We invite you to join us virtually by registering here.

Perelandra Beedles is a Senior lecturer in Television production Management in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on the impact of production schedules on those with caring responsibilities and sustainable television production.

Image: Screenshot from Staged

It’s Official: It’s Not Television That Makes You Stupid

Dr Elke Weissmann

On Monday, 13 September, The Guardian ran a story with the subtitle ‘TV really does rot your brain’. It was based on research by different American health scientists who looked into the relationship between (self-reported) television consumption and decline in grey matter in later life. The great aspect was that these were long-term studies, often starting as far back as the 1980s. The not so great element was that they focused on self-reported television consumption (seldom, sometimes, often) and very little else. When you read the statement of one of the research leads, Kelley Pettee Gabriel, what becomes evident is that it’s not about watching television but sedentary behaviour which television consumption is assumed to be.

So it’s not television, it’s lack of movement which is the actual problem. You could as well say ‘driving everywhere makes you stupid’. But obviously that is not a headline people would trust. However, a headline works that confirms society’s believes about television, a hugely important medium, but one where the technology is based in the home and has become a ‘home appliance’, which we consume in the private sphere and which women consume more. So why does television remain the bad object?

In my own research from 2012 I highlighted that television in the UK only became ‘good’ in the eyes of critics when it could be masculinised, either by the recourse to an imagined ‘creative genius’ of a showrunner or by connecting it to technology such as the internet and streaming services. What that research also implied is that in the UK (and also in the US) television overall remains connected to the feminine (and the working-class).

The value systems that are applied in order to judge television remain those highly established in our society. Valuable is that which is connected to the masculine, the upper or upper middle-classes and often that which is white (unless it is working class and white). Everything else is just labelled ‘trash’, at best perceived as popular culture, at worst as ‘rotting your brain’.

But television is a medium of incredible innovation and of huge importance in our daily lives. Be honest: how often did you turn to television for information, comfort or both during the pandemic? And what role does television play for you in your daily life? Should we not, because we use it daily, celebrate it more?

Well, that was our thinking when we developed the Critical Awards in Television, an award that aims to celebrate that which is often forgotten or overlooked and which we set up in order to challenge the hierarchies described above. Considering the impact of the pandemic on us all, we decided to focus this year on everything to do with the pandemic.

This meant celebrating writing and production design that managed to use the constraints of the pandemic for creative purposes, celebrating those production managers who are in charge of health and safety who have managed to come up with clever ideas to continue producing the programmes we love, and giving an award to the television programme that gave us most comfort.

The last category (the television programme that gave us most comfort) is decided by you, the public, and you can still vote by putting the number 195-874-377 into the Vevox app (voting closes Monday 20 September 2021).

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on television, transnational relations, and gender and the media.

Does the Award for Best Television Programme go to What We Value Most?

Elke Weissmann

It’s award season: the BAFTAs have just been celebrated at the beginning of June, and in America, the Emmys will be handed out in September. Did your favourite programmes win? No? Some of them? You are not sure?

Your potential lack of knowledge is not all that surprising. This is the industry celebrating itself and letting us in via the ceremony. But what that means is that there might be a bit of a disconnect between what we as audiences value about television and what the industry celebrates for itself.

The BAFTAs, for example, largely celebrate television as if it were film: awards go to writing, best performance (in different genres), supporting actors, and then best programme in genre categories – as if they didn’t know what to do with all the rest of television. I don’t know about you, but it’s the rest of television plus drama that I love so much: it’s its variety, and the fact that there are some incredibly clever people who manage to bring them together so I can just watch one programme and see what’s on next.

But there are other things about television that we can and that we do value: for example, you might watch lifestyle programming so that you learn about interior design trends, or The Repair Shop (BBC, since 2017) for its heart-rendering stories of loved possessions and family loved and lost, or Love Island (ITV, since 2015) for how ordinary young adults connect with each other, but really care more about their families. Value, in other words, lies in many places in television, and often the things that we value have more to do with our everyday lives than the glamour and glitz that awards based around filmic categories suggest.

The problem with awarding television as if it were film is that it does what so much of television’s history has done: it undervalues television as a medium. Television scholarship has spent a lot of time and effort on trying to critique the basic value systems with which it has been judged. Television has been denigrated because it is a medium connected to the domestic sphere and is hence often perceived as feminine. It has been looked down upon as a mass medium because the ‘masses’ are usually conceptualised as working class. Thus, the value systems with which we judge television as a medium, but also much of its genres, are those of a middle-class patriarchy. At the same time, the people who make the biggest decisions in television are precisely white, middle-class and male, and have therefore often looked down on the medium itself. A particularly notorious figure in that regard was William Haley, director general of the BBC between 1944 and 1952, who made his preference for radio very clear.

While television scholarship has been brilliant at critiquing the implicit biases of much of the value judgements made about television, it hasn’t yet been able to really offer alternatives. The Television Studies Research Group at Edge Hill University, in collaboration with Critical Studies in Television, the Production Guild, the Institute for Social Responsibility and Love Wavertree now want to do something about this: they are introducing the CATs: the Critical Awards in Television which will celebrate television in the way that we think matters. And I don’t know about you, but this year, I really valued that it kept going. So this year, we are celebrating television that gave us comfort during Covid, that dealt well with the new health and safety guidelines, that came up with ingenious writing or production design so that it could be made, and that our students made despite the pandemic.

And we invite you – the public – to nominate your favourite programmes. To find out more, and to nominate the programme you think did best in those categories, please visit the CATs website.

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on television, transnational relations, and gender and the media.

A Year of Covid TV

Covid Anniversary Blog

In a year when we spent more time at home than ever before, television provided a crucial window on the world. Ofcom estimated in August 2020 that during lockdown people were spending an average of 40% of their waking hours in front of a screen. TV watching was up by approximately a third.

While this might look like a windfall for TV broadcasters, these activities coincided with a sudden recession which wiped out a swath of advertising money. This led to a frustrating paradox – more people were watching, but broadcasters could not make extra revenue from the larger audiences.

In any case, there was the significant problem of what to fill schedules with. Like in most industries, normal processes for TV production juddered to a halt. We quickly became used to seeing contributors to news or panel shows Zooming in from home, with the inevitable ‘hilarity’ caused by interrupting children or pets.

Though our usual expectations for what TV ‘should’ look like were upended, in some ways these new practices provided a heightened version of the TV experience. TV has historically operated using an aesthetic that combines intimacy – an emphasis on human connection – with immediacy – the feeling that we are we are watching things unfold as they happen. Zoom interviews combine the two, giving us a momentary glimpse into the private world (and at the carefully curated bookshelves) of contributors.

But there were still huge gaps to fill in the schedules. Research at the University of Huddersfield suggested that this did not go unnoticed by audiences, who found their usual menu of ‘event television’ (high profile new shows scheduled in peak time) replaced by repeats.

The launch of Disney+ in March 2020 was seen by many as another nail in the coffin of broadcast television. Indeed, streaming video on demand services added an extra 4.6m subscribers during lockdown. Research found that people were turning to drama boxsets to escape the tedium.

Adopting a ‘show must go on’ attitude, the UK television industry agreed protocols in May 2020 for Covid secure productions. The gradual resumption of regular programming – especially soaps – mirrored the slow return to normality experienced in daily life. The reliability and routine of television schedules, especially daytime television provided a source of comfort to those who suddenly found themselves adrift in furlough.

Meanwhile, daily televised briefings provided a much-needed demonstration of the power and value of broadcasting. Watching the Prime Minister and his associates (or in Scotland, the First Minister) deliver key messages became for many a grim ritual, but one enabled by broadcast’s unique ability to gather a nation together.

The impact of Covid on TV production and broadcast has been vast and painfully visible. But it can also teach us about the ongoing value and importance television has in our lives: as a source of information, of comfort, and of connection. The problem comes of course, when you find that you have ‘completed Netflix’, and what to do next!

Dr Hannah Andrews is Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at Edge Hill University.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Totem and Taboo: UK Television Comedy in the light of Black Lives Matter

While our lives have been upended by the pandemic, the outrage triggered by the killing of George Floyd has drawn vital attention to the global scourge of racism. The impact of the Black Lives Matter movement has been immediate and spectacular. Protesters around the world have braved Covid-19 to amplify their anti-racist message.

In the UK, a totemic moment occurred as a controversial statue to slaver Edward Colston was torn from its pedestal and thrown into Bristol Harbour. This has prompted debate around the role and meaning of public art – one that will likely gain traction as it will provide a distraction from the politics of coronavirus.

Black Lives Matter has provoked an international reckoning in the creative industries. Apologies for intolerance and systemic racism have been issued from firms, institutions and individuals, from Anna Wintour of Vogue to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

There have also been highly publicised statements of regret from comedians and light entertainers for past racial insensitivities. Jimmy Fallon, Ant and Dec, Matt Lucas and David Walliams of Little Britain, and Leigh Francis of Bo Selecta have apologised for previously performing in blackface.

Each celebrity makes clear that this was a different time, that they would make better choices now. This rings false. Unlike the Colston statue, Bo Selecta and Little Britain are recent cultural artefacts. While our understanding of social injustice may have evolved, the 2000s was hardly an era where racist representation went unchallenged. The offence caused by Bo Selecta and Little Britain (Malik, 2010) was noted at the time.

It was reported by those directly affected by it: black performers like Craig David and Trisha Goddard whose personal lives and careers suffered as a result of Francis’ caricatures. Caricature attacks the individual, but also paradoxically makes them recognisable, through the grotesque distortion of physical appearance. In Bo Selecta, this was combined with racial stereotyping. Goddard noted that this emboldened people’s casual racism towards her and her family.

Comedy’s theorised function of providing a ‘release valve’ for social taboos has been used to defend comedic use of stereotypes, including blackface. A familiar answer to complaints of misrepresentation is to assert oversensitivity, the unwillingness to take a joke. Yet, being the butt of a joke is disempowering and has a negative cumulative effect on personal and collective self-esteem. A better use of caricature is to subvert stereotype, to punch up rather than down.

The apparently sudden realisation of blackface’s unacceptability has prompted the removal of comedy series such as The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen from Netflix and Little Britain from iPlayer. Removing content like this, or Gone With The Wind from public circulation is a flimsy, tokenistic gesture, a means of skirting rightful critique of these representations and the industries that produced them. Allowing cultural debates to centre on relics of racial injustice, even recent ones, runs the risk of overshadowing the more discreet, more crucial work of dismantling systemic racism.

Dr Hannah Andrews is a Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at Edge Hill University.

Refs: Malik, S. (2010) ‘How Little Britain ‘does’ race’ in Lockyer, S. (ed) Reading Little Britain: Comedy Matters on Contemporary Television. London: I.B. Tauris, 75 – 94.

Related post:
A note from the editor: Black Lives Matter

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash